Colo. Democrats and Republicans disappointed in governor’s plant-based meat pitch
Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Executive Vice President Terry Fankhauser sat down with First Gentleman Marlon Reis Wednesday evening. Reis founded the People for Animal Welfare, or PAW, Committee and is a longtime vegan and activist. Fankhauser said Reis communicated to him that the intention of the PAW Committee is not to deal with livestock issues.
Reis will be partnering with CCA to visit farm and ranch operations in the coming months to learn more about production agriculture in the state.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis had on his typical black slacks and tennis shoes and, on a hot day at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, donned a straw hat. The previous week, Polis gained the collective attention of the state’s beef-producing families when he asked Department of Agriculture employees to consider ways to capitalize on the plant-based protein fad. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Colorado Livestock Association and R-CALF all responded swiftly.
After Polis appeared at the Centennial Farms recognition ceremony, and before he was booed at the rodeo, he said the state’s more than $4 billion beef industry is too important to be embroiled in partisan issues.
“As a businessperson, I go to the economics first,” he said. “In Colorado, beef is a billion dollar business for our state but it’s beyond being economic, it’s also, as I mentioned in my remarks today to the different groups, farmers and ranchers are also a critical part of our identity, who we are, and our heritage. It’s more than just about business and economics.”
When it comes to economics, however, Polis said he wants to position Colorado farmers and ranchers for success through expanding markets domestic and international for products grown in the state, including beef, pork and lamb.
“We also want to make sure we can leverage market trends to the advantage of Colorado farmers and ranchers,” he said.
Polis acknowledged the challenges faced by Colorado producers through market volatility following the Tyson plant fire, international trade tariffs, and immigration and labor. He said the president of Taiwan visited Denver several weeks ago and during her visit, was treated to samples of Colorado beef. He said Taiwan is involved in the same trade war as China, but Asia would be an excellent market for Colorado beef with increasing incomes, increasing meat consumption, and a cultural cache for American beef.
“As someone who tries to look out for all of Colorado, my No. 1 goal is to make sure we have a future that works for Colorado farmers and ranchers,” he said. “No matter where the technology goes, we want to make sure we do it all here in Colorado.”
He said plant-based meat alternatives cost more than the traditional products, making them more of a novelty at this point. He does expect technology and scale to change moving forward, making the price more comparable, something he doesn’t see happening as quickly with lab-produced products.
“Plant-based is something that is already here, and we want to make sure Colorado is positioned for success,” he said. “It’s just a small part of the overall market, of course.”
As accurate labeling is important to the beef industry as more imitation products become available on the market, Polis said it needs to be done on a national basis, rather than state-by-state, creating barriers for interstate commerce and consumer confusion. Polis said the Department of Agriculture is focusing on the Colorado Proud brand to create a premium for producers and increase consumer trust.
“We have iconic branded items that demand a premium like Rocky Ford melon and Pueblo chilies, which we’ve done a lot with, Palisade peaches obviously,” he said. “Part of our focus in ag and the future of ag is how do we get more farmers and ranchers the opportunity to escape reliance on a fully commodities-based economy to some point of having premium production and greater margins, whether that’s organic, whether it’s specialty, even in the cattle space, we’re excited to have a water buffalo operation which is mozzarella cheese.”
“We want to celebrate our ag heritage, honor the history and the importance of ag, but we want to make sure that farming and ranching is a big part of Colorado’s future and not just something we celebrate as part of our heritage,” he said.
He said finding the farmers who will be part of the future of agriculture in the state is a focus of his and Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg. Not only finding new farmers and providing access to land, but also farm and ranch succession are focuses of his and Greenberg’s.
He said he is supporting the cattle industry with “everything we have today” with a focus on providing opportunities to not just get by, but to thrive in five or 10 years with changing technology.
“We’re always looking around the corner,” he said. “That’s what I did in my private sector and business career and that’s kind of how I approach our role in helping to promote grown in Colorado products, Colorado beef, Colorado Proud, but always helping our farmers and ranchers look around the corner and plan for future success.”
Polis said plant-based proteins are less of a threat to Colorado ranchers than making beef a partisan issue. He said he was inspired to try out the plant-based burger after U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue did so, adding that the reception to Polis’ doing so was very different. He cited the North American Meat Institute’s vice president of communications Sarah Little article that said, “He is a veterinarian who has long understood consumers benefit from a variety of protein products in the marketplace, including meat which has environmental, nutritional and economic benefits,” said Sarah Little, vice president of communications at the institute.
“When I did the same thing, it was a very different reaction,” he said.
Polis said the cattle industry must overcome any partisan differences, making it something Democrats and Republicans are solidly in support of. Longtime Yuma County Commissioner, farmer, and rancher Dean Wingfield said his family has been raising beef in the area for 130 years and they’ve all been Democrats that long, too. For Wingfield, the subject of beef is far from partisan, although the vast majority of farmers and ranchers tend to vote Republican.
“It’s not very partisan to me,” he said. “Now maybe if I raised soybeans, vegetable burgers would be okay but I’m a little disappointed how this turned out but there’s the other side to it that there are farmers out there that grow the products that go into it. It’s just not a partisan issue though, I don’t think. It’s about people who grow beef and they got kicked in the teeth a little bit.”
Wingfield has served Yuma County for 23 years as a commissioner and said the issues across his desk never come down to party though he admits, he’s likely the only rural Democratic commissioner north of I-70 and east of I-25.
Chris Wiseman, of Pueblo, Colo., said he’s heard concerns from people on both sides of the aisle in the past few days over what he calls a potential change in focus at the Department of Agriculture. For Wiseman, a Democrat who served as the general manager of the Colorado State Fair for 18 years before serving as Don Brown’s Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture, it is an industry issue.
“I don’t make a practice of criticizing sitting governors and I won’t criticize this one either,” he said. “But the issue is very simple.”
The real concern he’s heard from producers, Wiseman said, is a change away from support of the state’s beef industry. Though he doesn’t believe it is the case, he understands producers’ concerns. Wiseman said it was the state’s agriculture industry that carried the state financially during the recession in 2010.
“The industry in Colorado can actually carry the economy and that’s important for us to know and understand,” he said. “We have to do everything we can for every aspect of the industry in Colorado.”
As for other agriculture commodities being able to capitalize on the plant-based trend, he said only the market will determine that.
“If that’s what the public wants, we’ll see more of that and more of that industry in Colorado but right now, beef is king,” he said.
Polis said he believes consumers on the Front Range understand the beef industry’s importance to the state but do so from a consumer standpoint. The other difference, he said, is the producers’ desire for high prices and the consumers’ desire for low prices.
“Different stakeholder, different perspective but do they understand it? Yes,” he said.
He likens the gap between producers and consumers to iPhone users and the factory in China where they are made. He said not knowing the technicalities of production of, for example, the iPhone, doesn’t lessen a person’s enjoyment of using the iPhone. He said the chasm between consumers and beef producers is similar and is universal.
“It’s just different economics,” he said. “Consumers are in a marketplace and want something different than producers in a marketplace. It’s not in any way unique to agriculture.”
Keith Bath, of Fort Morgan, Colo., admits he hasn’t read all of the research about plant-based proteins but hopes Gov. Polis has. Bath, a lifelong Democrat who runs a large-scale flaked corn operation and has fed cattle his entire life, said he hopes the governor will support the beef industry moving forward and foster relationships with the families involved.
“When someone in power makes a statement, it needs to be unbiased and it needs to have research,” Bath said. “There’s a lack of that going on in this world today.”
Polis, who spent 10 years in congress, said he spent some of his professional career selling beef through Uptown Prime, an online retailer he grew from the ground to over $1 million in sales. He said he has a brother in the cattle business in Virginia and also grows alfalfa on his farm in Weld County and has for 20 years. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 392-4410.